NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Spencer will “in some form he’ll do some football,” this week practice. Spencer has not practiced in more than a year after playing in just one game with 34 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.
“He’s really worked hard and he looks good but he have to be mindful about where he’s coming from and just take it day by day and see how he handles the work,” Garrett said.
The Cowboys kept Spencer on the 53-man roster instead of putting him on the reserve physically unable to perform list because they thought he could be back before the Oct. 12 meeting at the Seattle Seahawks. Had he been placed on PUP, Spencer would have missed the first six games.
Garrett said Spencer could get most of the work on the side with the athletic training staff or go through a limited portion of individual drills. When Spencer returns, Garrett said he would play right defensive end. The Cowboys would work him in slowly as a designated pass rusher in nickel situations as he builds his strength and conditioning.
“Dez is a very, very tough individual,” Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s physically tough and he’s mentally tough. We went to him a number of different times in the game, and over and over and over again he made the plays. Made plays to keep drives alive. He made big plays. Scored the touchdown down in close. Again very productive once he came back.
“Anticipate taking his injury day by day. Hopefully he’ll be ready to do something Wednesday in practice. And then we’ll have a good week of preparation for St. Louis.”
Reserve running back Joseph Randle will have to pass the NFL’s concussion protocol tests after exiting in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans.
The St. Louis Rams might not be built to run a hurry-up offense without Sam Bradford, but they should notice the success the Tennessee Titans had against the Dallas Cowboys' defense by speeding things up.
The Cowboys allowed only two first downs and 68 yards in the first half, but the Titans came out in the second half with the no-huddle and scored on their first two possessions. Tight end Delanie Walker scored on a 61-yard pass and caught 10 passes for 142 yards, which should raise concerns about the Cowboys' ability to slow a tight end.
The Rams had 11 first downs and 246 yards in the second half without huddling.
"The challenge is just getting lined up," Cowboys safety Barry Church said. "They do that mostly to see what defense you're in. You definitely have to show your cards more. It got us out of disguising things early and they were able to pick us apart a little bit. Once we settled down, I thought we did a better job against it."
Here's a look at five plays that shaped the Cowboys' win:
Play: Tony Romo incompletion
Situation: Second-and-4 from Tennessee 33
Score: Dallas leads, 16-10
Time: 4:51 left in third quarter
Taylor's Take: There's a good chance we'd be talking about the 0-2 Cowboys if Jason Witten doesn't make the play of the game. Tennessee had scored on its first two second-half possessions to pull within 16-10. On this play, Witten initially blocked before releasing into the right flat. Romo threw the ball high and it bounced off Witten's fingertips into the arms of Bernard Pollard, who would've returned it for a touchdown. Witten instinctively grabbed Pollard around the waist and knocked the ball out. Six plays later, Dez Bryant caught a touchdown pass for a 23-10 lead.
Situation: Third-and-6 from Tennessee 50
Score: Tied, 0-0
Time: 7:27 left in first quarter
Taylor's Take: DeMarco Murray's second fumble of the season had given Tennessee great field position and an opportunity to take an early lead. Nate Washington ran a crossing route and settled in a soft spot on the Cowboys' zone, but safety J.J. Wilcox broke nicely on Locker's pass, deflecting it, and middle linebacker Rolando McClain slung him to the ground to force the incompletion and keep the score tied.
Play: Chris Jones punt
Situation: Fourth-and-six from Dallas 42
Score: Dallas leads, 10-0
Time: 6:51 left in second quarter
Taylor's Take: Dwayne Harris shows folks every week why he's among this team's most important players. Jones' punt bounced at 15 and was headed into the end zone, but Harris avoided Dexter McCluster's block at the 5, grabbed the ball at the 1 and tossed it backward just before he landed in the end zone. James Hanna downed the ball at the 2. The field position switch ultimately led to a field goal and a 13-0 Dallas lead.
Play: Cole Beasley reception
Situation: Third-and-7 from Dallas 35
Score: Dallas leads, 23-10
Time: 13:03 left in fourth quarter
Taylor's Take: The Cowboys needed a good drive to burn some clock and reduce Tennessee's chances of a comeback. So Romo picked a good time to deliver one of his best passes. Beasley, operating from the slot, ran a quick out and Romo delivered a perfect pass that Beasley caught in stride for a first down. The 11-play, 38-yard drive ended with a field goal.
Play: Kyle Wilber sack
Situation: Second-and-10 from Tennessee 13
Score: Dallas leads, 13-0
Time: :53 left in second quarter
Taylor's Take: The Titans were aggressive at the end of the first half, but Wilber wrecked the plan with a strong power rush. It was the first sack by a defensive lineman -- Wilber was rushing as a defensive end not a linebacker. It put the Titans in a third-and-long situation that helped force a punt and set up another Dallas field goal before the end of the half.
He was upset McClain wasn’t credited with a touchdown.
Garrett needed to challenge the ruling on the field of an interception after the officials said Jake Locker’s pass hit the ground after Henry Melton hit the quarterback’s arm.
“I was staring right at it,” Garrett said. “One of the things they always emphasize -- and it’ the right thing to do -- is kind of work with the ref on it and get confirmation together. But there was no question in my mind because I was staring right at it. And for them to blow the whistle on that one when it should’ve been a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown was excruciating to say the least.”
That wasn’t the only time replay helped the Cowboys. In the fourth quarter Nate Washington’s 6-yard touchdown grab was overturned when replays showed the ball hit the ground with a little help from Brandon Carr.
“As soon as I saw the ball touch the ground I said, ‘Oh, no you can’t give them a touchdown on that one,” safety Barry Church said. “Me and Brandon were waving our arms like crazy. It was beneficial to us.”
If that day comes, he won’t talk about his pass breakup in Sunday’s 26-10 win against the Tennessee Titans.
It was, however, one of the Cowboys’ most critical plays in winning their first game of the season.
“I was just trying to tackle him and got my hand on it,” Witten said. “We got lucky there.”
The Cowboys’ 16-point halftime lead was cut to six points before the Witten breakup. They ended that drive with a Dez Bryant touchdown and a 23-10 lead.
“That was big,” Romo said. “Obviously turnovers matter.”
It allowed Romo to finish without an interception after he was picked off three times in the season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers. In the 11 games after Romo was intercepted three times, he has now thrown 16 touchdown passes and been picked off eight times while the Cowboys have posted a 6-5 mark.
“You know the game can come down to a couple play as you saw in San Francisco, and I needed to tighten up the way I played so that what I did today,” Romo said. “And whether we needed to throw for 300 yards or 200 or 180, I was going to do what we needed and we needed that today.”
There was nothing remotely subtle about this double-team. The Titans were treating Bryant like he was a gunner on the punt team, using two guys to jam him at the line of scrimmage and keep him from getting into his route.
Bryant, the Dallas Cowboys’ go-to guy, saw that kind of coverage in last season’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. He saw it again later Sunday afternoon.
But Bryant had plenty of opportunities against traditional coverage against the Titans, catching 10 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in Dallas’ 26-10 win.
“You’ve just got to make a play when your number is called,” Bryant said. “That’s it.”
The Cowboys kept calling Bryant’s number during the most critical drive of the game, a 12-play, 80-yard march for a touchdown after the Titans scored 10 quick points in the third quarter to pull within six.
Tony Romo targeted Bryant eight times on that series. Those plays produced five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown and a 9-yard gain on a pass interference penalty. Bryant kept the drive alive with an 18-yard gain on third-and-15 and ended it by beating cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson for a 3-yard score on a back-shoulder fade.
The Titans couldn’t afford to consistently double Bryant because they were getting gashed so badly by running back DeMarco Murray, who gained 167 yards on 29 carries. Bryant figures that he better feast when Murray demands so much of the defense’s attention.
“DeMarco is turning straight beast mode, man, straight beast mode,” Bryant said. “I know he’s going to keep doing that. When he runs the ball like that, all the running backs, it just makes our jobs that much easier.”
And if defenses want to make Bryant their primary focus, that’s fine by him, too. Even if it means getting the gunner treatment.
“I’m going to have to go to practice and work on it,” Bryant said. “I am. I don’t think you really can [beat that coverage], but in my mind, I can beat anything.”
The Tennessee Titans scored 10 points on their first two possessions of the second half, and the crowd was getting into it.
“You have to respond in a 60-minute game,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett after his team's 26-10 win. “As we all know, some things are going to go well for you in the game and you have to keep building on those things and keep the pressure on them. And sometimes it’s going to go against you. You have to respond the right way to adversity.”
On what was a quiet Tony Romo day – 19-of-29 passing, 176 yards – the Cowboys quarterback had his most important moments after the Titans made the score 16-10. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 65 yards and ended the 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring throw to Dez Bryant.
“I think you could feel at that point in the game it was a drive that you feel like you can make the difference and make it very difficult for a team,” Romo said.
The Cowboys had their breathing room with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
On a day in which the Cowboys stayed mostly ahead of the chains with a running game that gained 220 yards on 43 carries, it was a bailout by Romo and Bryant on third-and- 15 that turned into one of the biggest plays. Well, that and a Jason Witten pass breakup.
After Travis Frederick was penalized for holding, the Cowboys faced third-and-15 from the Tennessee 29. The Titans rushed only four at the snap, but Romo slid to his right as he felt a little pressure up the middle. Bryant broke off his route and moved inside to give Romo more space.
“It’s not a complete ad lib because his route is where it’s supposed to be,” Romo said. “I moved just to kind of create the time that I think you need for that specific route, for that kind of down and distance.”
Bryant got 18 yards and the Cowboys had their touchdown three plays later.
Jason Witten did not see anything in the Dallas Cowboys' 26-10 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
“I think he’s himself,” Witten said.
Head coach Jason Garrett said Romo was solid.
“Tony was more of a complimentary player,” Garrett said, “but I think he played a good game for us.”
Johnny Manziel last spring, came the closest to saying something didn’t seem quite right.
“We all saw a couple of passes that looked like they needed a little more energy,” Jones said. “But then I saw him throw on a key third-down situation, I saw him zip that ball out there to Cole Beasley. If you can see that, by the way, in the fourth quarter after a lot of snaps, you can count on it being there.”
Maybe it is just the heightened awareness because of Romo’s back surgery last December. Maybe we’re looking for the first cracks of age. Coming off a three-interception game in the season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, all eyes were on Romo to see how he would respond Sunday against the Titans.
Romo completed 19 of 29 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown in the win, but it was some of the throws that floated that stood out almost as much as the third-and-7 completion for 10 yards to Beasley that Jones referenced or the 18-yard pickup on third and 15 to Dez Bryant on the game’s most crucial drive.
Romo missed Witten on back-to-back throws at the end of the first half that he has made thousands of times in games and practices over the years. He floated one to Bryant near the Dallas sideline and was low on a crossing route to Bryant as well.
“Listen, I’m telling you guys, the reason I’m excited is because of the way I’m throwing the football,” Romo said. “Physically just like piercing it when I want to. I can throw it better than I ever have. The rest of it is part of the game and footwork and your hips. Did you find the guy at the right time? Or are you working here and throwing it over there so it’s like you don’t get anything on it?”
It wasn’t arm strength, or a sore back -- he was sacked four times by the Titans -- but body position.
On the throw to Witten: “It’s 14 seconds, no timeouts. So what you’re going to try to is hold yourself up high so the corner drives up and then at the last second throw it here. Your body’s not turned, so it’s really hard. You don’t want to just open up and turn, or the corner comes off. So that throw has nothing to do with arm or any of that stuff. It’s more body, getting yourself in position … It looks easy. It’s just not.”
On the throw to Beasley: “It’s third down, outbreaking route. I’m just right in here and he breaks out and you throw it and it’s right on target. ... If I’m able to just drop back and throw the ball, I’ve never thrown it as well as I am.”
On the throw to Bryant: “The corner doesn’t blitz, but he looks like he’s blitzing to help in the run game. So I’m giving him a play-action fake and as soon as I’m coming up to throw it, he’s supposed to be over the middle. So as I come up and see, my body weight is getting ready and not I want to get him to him quick. Most people just kind of reset, but it would take so long to get there. ... You’re never going to get anything on the ball. Not if you’re going to give it to him quickly.”
In a crisp gray suit with white shirt, blue tie and black dress shoes, Romo demonstrated his motions on those throws as he walked to the Cowboys’ buses, accepting congratulations as stadium workers passed by.
There was no pass rush. Nor was there thousands screaming in the stands. It was just Romo pantomiming his actions as he spoke, bouncing on his toes, his held head high as if he was reading the coverage.
“I think I’m going to make it,” Romo said. “I’m getting stronger every week. It’s a positive. It’s been good this last month.”
"It's about winning," Romo said. "We've done the stat thing plenty of times. It's about winning and if our football team can continue to run the ball like we can, I'm all for these types of games and that's exciting when you have the opportunity to have a team that can do that."
Staying out of hole: Jason Garrett downplayed the importance of avoiding an 0-2 start, but his players knew just how big of a difference it is between 1-1 and 0-2.
"Starting off 0-2 is tough," safety Barry Church said. "After putting yourself in a hole like that it's hard to come back and make the tournament at the end of the season. We were able to stay away from that situation and hopefully we can just climb up from now on."
Maybe there is a defense: After a woeful preseason, the defense has played better than many thought it would through two games. The Cowboys have allowed just two touchdowns in the last seven quarters after giving up 14 points in the first quarter of the opener against San Francisco. The Cowboys sacked Jake Locker two times and intercepted him twice. They did it without defensive captain Justin Durant, who has a groin injury.
"We stepped in and figured out a way to find the right matchups and we made the plays when we were supposed to make them," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said.
What it means: The Cowboys didn’t just need a win; they absolutely had to have a win. They had lost six straight games, dating back to last year’s season finale (preseason included) and would have been in free-fall mode with a loss to the Titans.
Instead, they corrected their course from their season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers -- perhaps temporarily -- with a game that featured a strong running game (220 yards on 43 carries), opportunistic defense (two takeaways) and terrific special-teams play. It is a simple formula to follow, but not something the Cowboys have been able to do consistently the last four years.
The win gives the Cowboys their fourth straight 1-1 start. Does this portend another 8-8 start?
Stock watch: Passing game coordinator Scott Linehan came to the Cowboys with a reputation as a pass-first playcaller after his run with the Detroit Lions. Through two games, Linehan has reverted back to his days in Minnesota when he directed a top-10 running game in the early 2000s. So good was the Dallas running game that the Cowboys were able to fill the final 6:22 without Tony Romo having to throw the ball, allowing their fans in attendance to start a “Let’s go Cowboys chant” that echoed throughout LP Field.
The money down: In the opener, the Cowboys’ defense had no answers on third down against the 49ers. The Niners converted on 7 of 12 tries and they were mostly uncontested. The Cowboys made a huge improvement Sunday, allowing just two third-down conversions on 10 tries. The Titans failed to convert a third down on six first-half tries. Tennessee’s first third-down conversion was a 61-yard touchdown pass from Jake Locker to Delanie Walker on the second drive of the third quarter, but the Cowboys were able to shut the door and effectively ended the game with a third-down pass breakup by Brandon Carr in the end zone (after a replay review) and a fourth-down stop with 6:22 to play.
Game ball: DeMarco Murray fumbled in the first quarter for the second straight game, but he was able to get past his mistake with his second straight 100-yard game. He finished with 167 yards on 29 carries and scored the Cowboys’ first touchdown. He had 115 yards on 17 carries in the first half as the Cowboys' offensive line took the wind out of the Titans. This is the third time Murray has gone for more than 100 yards in consecutive games in his career and the first since Weeks 14 and 15 last year against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys lost both of those games, but were able to get the win Sunday.
What’s next: The Cowboys travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. The last time the Cowboys visited there, they were embarrassed 34-14 on Oct. 19, 2008, when Romo was missing because of a broken pinkie finger.
Dallas has lost 18 consecutive games when it didn't force a turnover, a span of 76 regular-season games. The last time the Cowboys won a game in which the defense failed to force a turnover, they needed 250 yards receiving from Miles Austin to rally against the Kansas City Chiefs in October 2009.
It hard to win in the NFL without turnovers because of the momentum they generate and field position they produce, which is why defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has increased the focus on turnovers the week.
The Cowboys work on turnover drills during the individual period of every practice, but the intensity has been increased this week.
“We ended up playing solid as a defense. We didn't make enough plays,” Marinelli said. “We kind of played the defense.
“We hustled. We hit. We were fairly physical but we need the back row to get the picks and lock them down. We need the front to make the sack fumble and the linebackers to get a pick when they have it. We gotta get the playmakers to step up, and that's the challenge this week.”
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Murray said. “I never have, never will. I know what I can do. I have a lot of confidence in myself and those are some great running backs, but I definitely think I can handle a little bit of everything. So it’s something I don’t really get caught up in too much.”
Murray, who was selected for his first Pro Bowl after last season, doesn’t have enough of a track record to be considered elite at this point. But, if the past eight games are an indication, the 26-year-old Murray could be in that class soon.
In that span, Murray has rushed for 780 yards and seven touchdowns on 144 carries.
McCoy and San Diego’s Ryan Mathews are the only backs with more rushing yards after the midway point of last season. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is the only back with more rushing touchdowns. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and the Jets’ Chris Ivory are the only ones with a higher yards-per-carries average and at least 90 attempts.
Murray, who has had durability issues, must prove he can stay healthy and produce at that level consistently. But he’s beginning to build a case that he’s among the league’s best backs.
After missing the preseason as he worked his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last season while with the Chicago Bears and a groin injury suffered in training camp, Melton played in 26 of 58 defensive snaps in the Cowboys’ Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“I’m still going to go off what they tell me to do,” Melton said, “but I think I think I should be given significantly more plays this week.”
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was with Melton in Chicago and saw him make the Pro Bowl. He believes Melton operates best at 38-40 snaps a game.
“A guy like him you don’t want to wear him down because of his quickness,” Marinelli said. “I’m hoping around that and keep kind of having the chance to rotate all these guys last week and continue to do that.”
In the three games Melton played last year he felt he played too much, which made him less effective. He did not have a sack before hurting his knee.
“You can’t really max out like you want every play and still be ready to go in the fourth quarter,” Melton said. “I have played with Rod for a few years. He knows when I am at my best and how many plays.”